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Unfortunately, my experience begins and ends with Philosophy 101, so I can't speak to the "Philosophical Story" piece. However, I'm compelled to tell you that I am so amazed/jealous that you found a discipline that you are so clearly passionate about. I have little interest in philosophy as a whole, but whenever you post something, I read it in it's entirety. You should write a book that translates complex philosophical thoughts into something that us non-philosophy people can understand - I would buy it! :)


Slight correction: Sartre wrote No Exit, not Beckett. Thanks for telling your story.

Marcus Arvan

Oops -- right you are! Corrected. Thanks!


wonderful story - i kind of derived a lot of philosophy independently of the tradition - at 11 i was thinking about 'objective aesthetics' in those terms, at 12 i had independently discovered the munchhausen trilemma - kind of pathetic that i'm bragging about my intellectual prowess at 11! ;) panpsychist


i mean that your story, not mine, is 'wonderful'

Rob Gressis

The closest experience I had to something like yours was this:

When I was a first-year undergraduate at the University of Dayton, I took an introduction to philosophy and religion class. One of the readings we had was a selection from the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. It was "only ten pages" (this is how I was thinking, as someone who had never encountered Kant before), so I tried to read it.

It was incomprehensible to me. The thing is, nothing written in prose had been incomprehensible to me before. (Don't get me wrong: I probably didn't really appreciate half of the literature I read in high school; but I at least *thought* I understood it.) So, I decided to really knuckle down and try to read this. I would reread paragraph after paragraph, but no dice. So, I sat down with my parents, both of whom are college professors (neither in philosophy), and started reading passages from the work aloud, in the hopes that they would be able to decipher it. They had no idea what he was talking about either.

So, after two and a half hours of trying as hard as I could to understand it (in retrospect, two and a half hours is nothing, but at the time it seemed like a truly extravagant amount to spend on a mere ten pages -- and it may have been five, not ten), I gave up.

But I told myself that, one day, I would master Kant.

So, a couple of years later -- by this point, I was a philosophy major -- I took a course on the Critique of Pure Reason. This was a seminar-style course taught by a Kant scholar, Kurt Mosser. For the first part of the semester, I really tried to read the Critique. I don't quite remember when I gave up, but I do recall starting the Schematism and then just closing the book, resigning myself to the conclusion that, once again, Kant had won.

But I vowed to master Kant.

I should say, after the introductory class, as part of my vow to master Kant, I enrolled in German classes. Eventually, I got a minor in German, and spent a year in Germany after I graduated. While in Germany, I took a course with Reinhardt Brandt on the Marburg Neo-Kantians. It was all in German and it focused on Hermann Cohen, but Hermann Cohen was writing about Kant. Of course, I didn't understand any of it, and not just because of the language barrier.

But I vowed I would master Kant. Hermann Cohen? Meh.

So, in graduate school at the University of Michigan, I took a course on the Critique of Pure Reason with Ian Proops. Once again, Kant's architectonic enmeshed my brain and I couldn't make any progress. I did write a paper on Kant's ontological argument that got a good grade from Proops, but in retrospect, I don't think I deserved it. I mean, I knew I still didn't understand Kant. But I vowed to, man.

Rather than narrate all the next steps of this boring, wordy journey, I'll just say this: I majored in philosophy in order to understand Kant. I learned German in order to understand Kant. I wrote a dissertation on Kant's theory of evil in order to understand Kant. I've taught a course on the Critique of Pure Reason in order to understand Kant. And, I still don't understand Kant.

I will say this: I understand Kant substantially better than I did when I was an undergraduate. But I still don't get the transcendental deduction, the derivation of the categorical imperative, the doctrine of the highest good, and...well, the list is too long to enumerate. However, I have changed my vow: if I don't understand all the things about Kant that I want to understand about him by the time I'm 55, I'm going to move on to something else.

Kenny Pearce

Rob - I didn't go on to become a Kant specialist, but I can sympathize with your story. My first impression of Kant was: maybe if I write meaningless long sentences with lots of big words, people in 300 years will still be trying to figure out what I meant. My second impression of Kant was: it could take the rest of my life to understand what's being said here, and it might be worth it. (It didn't help that the first work of Kant's I encountered was the third Critique, which I had to read as a freshman!) It was only fairly recently, in graduate school, that I started feeling like I was getting any traction. I took an upper-division undergrad class on the first Critique, then was a TA for an intro class that covered some excerpts from the first Critique, then had to read a bunch of secondary literature on Kant for my area exam in early modern philosophy. Somewhere in there I started feeling like every time I went back I was understanding more (though the end is still not in sight). Prior to that I felt like I was just spinning my wheels. But when you start to gain traction its just amazing how philosophically fruitful it is to try to puzzle out what Kant is up to. So good luck to you!

Marcus Arvan

Rob: neat story -- and one that I can empathize with. Thanks for sharing it!

For my part, I still don't get the transcendental deduction. However, after 20 years of more or less constant thought about it, I think I *finally* have the derivation of the Categorical Imperative down (I have an article on it forthcoming called, "A Simple, Intuitive Case for the Categorical Imperative", and intend to write a book on it and the unity of the formulas this summer). So, don't give up hope! Who knows -- I probably still have it all wrong, but whatever. Trying to get it right is what makes it so fun, no? ;)

Rob Gressis

Hi Marcus and Kenny,

Marcus, re: your last question--"Trying to get right is what makes it so fun, no?"--, the answer is: sometimes. Sometimes, I feel like I'm really making progress, and I feel really great about it. Other times, though, I find Kant saying something that, if I had been right, he really shouldn't have been saying. Which means either that I misinterpreted him, or he contradicted himself, or I have to rethink whether what I said is the same thing as what he's saying, or ...

By contrast, I've recently been working on Hume, and the difference between reading Hume and Kant is night and day. With Hume, I can very quickly come up with a bunch of different interpretations without having to master the whole system (at least: I think). But with Kant that seems out of the question. Throw into the fact that Kant may have changed his mind about some issues without saying so, and things get dispiriting.

Marcus Arvan

Rob: for me, the secret to understanding Kant requires sometimes putting aside what Kant was saying and instead thinking about what he was *doing*. I think it's a mistake to try to put all of Kant's puzzle pieces together, for I think he *does* contradict himself. Further, I think a lot of his ideas and arguments are ones that *he* hadn't fully worked out -- at least not on paper in anything he left us (e.g. the unity of the CI's different formulas). For me, I think the right way to approach Kant is (A) look at what he wrote, (B) figure out what he was trying to do, (C) see where he mucked it up, and (D) forget what he *said* and figure out what he *should* have said. This approach, however much it might offend some (i.e those who think a proper reverence for the Greats is understanding and rendering consistent their every word), has helped me develop what I feel is a much better idea of what's going on with him, at least in his moral philosophy. It's not Kant's words that matter so much in my view as the ideas behind them -- and it has become much clearer te more I've gone on that however deep and brilliant the spirit of Kant's ideas are, he just didn't have a lot of the details worked out right, and simply trying to work them out the way *he* did leads into a lot of blind alleys. Maybe that's why you're frustrated.

Rob Gressis

I'm very nervous to adopt a "what Kant should have said" approach, for a variety of reasons:

(1) I don't have strong convictions on any philosophical issue, so I have little idea what anyone should say.
(2) Often, when people say, "I'm trying to figure out X should have said", they mean, "I'm trying to make what X said consistent with what most philosophers believe nowadays, because otherwise we have no reason to care about X." I don't like that view because I think that, chances are, the philosophical community will change its mind about a lot of things in the coming centuries. (P.S.: I don't think this is what you mean when you say this, especially given your disagreements with what most philosophers say nowadays.)
(3a) I think it's practically certain that Kant contradicted himself. (3b) I also think it's practically certain that, at least sometimes, Kant didn't articulate his reasons for certain positions that, nowadays, would be extremely unpopular; that said, we may be able to figure out what positions were just assumed by him by looking at his context. (3c) Finally, I also think it's a live option that Kant might have been saying that that are true but that we can't appreciate owing to our own unargued for presuppositions. It's (3c) that makes me think it's worth my time to try to solve the Kant puzzle.

Marcus Arvan

Rob: it was just a suggestion. All I can say for myself is that trying to understand the spirit of what Kant is doing rather than the letter, and then working everything out from the ground up myself, has led me to understand (I think) many things about Kant -- about why we should obey the CI and why the various formulas can be unified -- than straight textual interpretation ever did. I'll be posting the chapters from the book as I write it in the Working Paper Group this summer. Maybe I'll convince you then. ;)

Marcus Arvan

Or maybe I'll learn that I've got it all wrong. ;)

Rob Gressis

Hi Marcus,

Sorry if it seems like I "went off" on you. If I did, that was against the spirit of my comments, even if not the letter. ;)

That said, I've heard this line a lot, and maybe I need to start taking it up myself, so that I can get my work published. I just seem to be constitutionally incapable of it.

Marcus Arvan

No worries, Rob! If you don't mind a little plug for the approach I'm advocating, have you taken a look at my paper "Unifying the Categorical Imperative"? I just read through it again, and I'm still quite happy with it (which is by no means the norm when I re-read my work!). If you're at all interested in the alternative approach I've advocated here, it might be worth taking a look at it. For better or worse (hopefully for better!), it might give you a better idea of what I have in mind, and why I think it is a useful approach.

Rob Gressis

I haven't read your paper. I'll take a look.

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